Thursday, January 26, 2012

If I had the spare time....

I'd be finishing and publishing my list of scientific and academic publications in which Daniel Tammet is mentioned or discussed. This list has a lot in common with other stuff I've published already. In most items in my list Tammet is discussed in an uncritical way, which is my point - that a story that is not the complete truth has become a part of the world's scientific literature, and that's a great shame, and this piece of stupidity that makes a joke of science is a lesson that everyone should try to learn from.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm reading a new book just out by Gary Marcus called "Guitar zero".

It challenges the commonly held that children are better at picking up new skills than adults. Instead, the evidence suggests that children appear to be better at picking up musical instruments, foreign languages etc simply because they have way more free time to practice than adults.

He tests his theory by taking a year out from his research at age 38 to do nothing but learning to play the guitar from scratch. You can read a bit about it here: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204720204577128480043944556.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

This also fits with the Daniel Tammet story. His excellent performances in the memory championships and pi memorisation come after a period of his life when he was apparently unemployed with no activity to occupy him other than his memorisation and languages.

So we are not too old to learn a musical instrument or learn to speak a language by a native.

If only we had the spare time...

Mr Anon

Lili Marlene said...

I recall from reading Tammet's first book that he recounted unsuccessful attempts to find work when he was younger. I think this lead to his opting to go to Europe as an adult education ESL teacher.

A few years ago I read much of a quite good pop psychology book that argued that elite performance was all about practice and little to do with innate ability. Wish I could reall the title. There was an article in Scientific American magazine a few years ago in the same vein. The big flaw that I see in these arguments is that the vast majority of people lack the motivation to clock up the 1000's of hours that are apparently needed to become elite at some sport or performance, and thus we are left in need of an explanation for the motivation, which these theories don't explain, perhaps because it is assumed that good character is the basis of motivation, and there is an assumption that anyone can just choose to pull their socks up and get good character. I'm a parent of kids who are all interesting in their own ways, and I know that effort can trump ability at school, while some kids have unexplained abilities that seem to make study effortless. I have also seen how self-motivation can achieve amazing things, but can also be as unpredictable as a summer storm. Autistics possibly have more spare time to study stuff due to no social life, but i also think motivation works in unusual ways in autistic people.

That book that you mention would need to debunk or dismiss the well-known belief that there is a set window of opportunity for learning a new language without a foreign accent which ends at puberty. The concept of windows of opportunity in learning has a powerful hold, and has been used by the zero to three movement to demand quality childcare and early education.

Anonymous said...

I haven't got far enough yet with the book to see if it addresses the point you make about windows of opportunity for language learning.

However, based on my own experience of learning languages (I've lived abroad a couple of times) I suspect the answer is that there really is a window of opportunity for learning to speak without an accent. Learning to speak without an accent is incredibly hard for an adult learner, and there are plenty of examples of extremely proficient english speakers who have excellent vocabularies and grammar, but still have strong accents (most universities are full of academics fitting that description!).

However, accent is only one small part of speaking a foreign language, and not a crucial issue unless you are trying to impersonate a native. On grammar and vocabulary, I think that the adult learner holds the advantage - at least, if they use good study techniques. Based on my own experience, if I study hard, I can learn new words at a rate which I'm sure far surpasses my four-year-old self. And I suspect people with really well trained memories and experience in languages would outpace the four-year-old by a huge factor.

On the subject of language learning, I gather theres another book just published, called "Babel no more - the search for the world's most extraordinary language learners", which I gather mentions Tammet. I haven't got hold of a copy yet, but I'm very keen to see what it has to say about him.

Mr Anon

Anonymous said...

There have been a number of pop psychology books in recent years arguing that practice is relatively more significant than "talent" in explaining elite performance.

Good examples are Bounce - the myth of talent and the power of practice by Matthew Syet, The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, and Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. They all make similar arguments based on similar evidence.

I find the overall argument quite convincing. While clearly both innate abilities and environment both matter, I think a good case can be made that people, the media and society tend to systematically overrate the importance of talent and underrate practice - and this has big implications for how we live our lives and bring up our kids.

All of these books they make heavy reference to K Anders Ericsson's work - essentially they could all be regarded as popularisations of his idea of "Deliberate practice". Joshua Foer's Moonwalking with Einstein also falls into the same category.

And interestingly, this all leads back to Daniel Tammet. One of the key studies that all of this relies on is the "Routes to remembering" study that Tammet participated in. It's very widely cited (directly and indirectly through Ericsson's summary "Exceptional memorisers: made not born"), so it's one of the cornerstones of the deliberate practice theory.

If it turns out that Tammet really is a savant with exceptional inborn talent, this would surely discredit the "Routes to remembering" study and very much weaken the "Talent is overrated" argument. It's one of the reasons why I think it's very important that the scientific community sorts out the truth behind the Tammet story, whatever it may be.

Mr Anon

Lili Marlene said...

It looks like Tammet gets an uncritical mention in the new book Babel No More, but probably not that much of a discussion of him. I'll try to get the book thru the library system when it is published in Australia. In my list of famous people on the spectrum there are plenty og polyglots, which of course might have more to do with intellectual giftedness than the autistic spectrum.

Lili Marlene said...

I think it was the book by Coyle that i read, in which it was argued that practice is more important than talent. I didn't realise that the Routes to Remembering study was that important. It is a bit of a worry really, if it is a bedrock upon which accepted theory is based on, because it has many shortcomings when looked at from the viewpoint of 2012. The face memory test used is unacceptable by today's standards, because it does not have just faces with all other deatures clipped out of the picture. I recall that the brain scans checked out grey matter, but white matter is different in synaesthesia, and you need newer brain scan technology to study white matter. The issue of synaesthesia appears to have been completely overlooked in the Routed to Remembering study, which is a huge oversight, even for the times when it was done, in light of Luria's famous "S" case. I wrote an article comparing Tammet with Jill Price to highlight how very obvious synaesthesia in a case studied can be overlooked by university researchers who are supposed to be experts in memory (!!!), and I'm not convinced that the same couldn't have happened in the Routes to Remembering study. What we need is for a sharp, unbiased new team of researchers to do an updated version of the Routes to Remembering study. I'm not holding my breath.

Lili Marlene said...

Why is it that every year, when the top performers in year 12 high school are featured in newspaper stories in the Australian city in which I live, there are always some Chinese or Asian-looking young people? Do they come from a culture that values study more? Do they come from migrant backgrounds and are hungry for success in a new country? Or are they just genetically superior? I've read that Asians as a race have the highest IQ scores on average. But could study influence IQ? THe difficulty of mastering the written language of some Asian countries is thought to act to boost IQ involuntarily. It's a devilishly hard thing to figure out what is the cause.

Anonymous said...

It's a shame there's not been a repeat of the Routes for Remembering study, or at least a bit more scrutiny (such as finding out what Daniel Corney really said to the researchers about how much he practiced).

However, there is a controlled experiment of sorts going on every year, albeit not scientific. The world memory championship gives an objective measure of memory performances, and all of the top performers attribute their success to practice and technique. I'm unaware of any claims to savant skills at all apart from for Daniel Corney/Tammet (who is now well outside the top 100 in the world rankings).

All it would take to disprove the hypothesis that practice and technique are the most important factor is for a single person to come forward who had an exceptional performance and demonstrable differences (eg history of exceptional memory from childhood, synaesthesia or autism).

But given that so many years have passed, with so many more people competing in these championships, I'm not holding my breath.

Mr Anon

Lili Marlene said...

"All it would take to disprove the hypothesis that practice and technique are the most important factor is for a single person to come forward who had an exceptional performance and demonstrable differences (eg history of exceptional memory from childhood, synaesthesia or autism)."

I don't quite follow your reasoning there. It's quite possible that a person who has trained just like all the other competitors and won in a memory competition could have a neurological oddity of some type and still this just be an unrelated coincidence.

If you were really motivated you could trawl thru al the latest journal papers about synaesthesia and try to figure out how common it is, in all it's different types.
I can assure you that it is not rare, in fact, I reckon if you have something like 30 or so people performing well in a competition, you would expect that there would be at least one synaesthete in that group simply by chance.

If some researcher did a study and found that synaesthetes are over or under-represented in the elite memory comp performers that would be interesting, but the problem is that researchers have done a poor job inthe past of estimating how common it really is in the general population,and have also been pretty dud at identifying all the different types of synaesthesia in any target group, which is understandable, as new types are being discovered quite regularly.

Just a thought - do you think left-handers are under or over-represented among the elite of memory sports?

Anonymous said...

I don't know if left handers are overrepresented among top memorisers. I know Dominic O'Brien, one of the most famous champions, is left handed, but don't know about the others. It might be interesting to research it - it shouldn't be too hard.

Mr Anon

Anonymous said...

As you say, identifiying a top memory performer with, say, synaesthesia or apergers wouldn't in itself prove or disprove anything as neither conditions are particularly rare.

But if it could be shown that that person had not practiced to the extent of the others (i.e. the root of the top performance is from innate differences rather than practice), it would cause serious questions for research.

I.e. if it could be proven that everything Tammet says in his autobiography is true, and that he had never practiced conventional memory techniques as he claims, it would disprove many of the conclusions drawn from the "Routes to Remembering" study - Eriksson's claim that "Exceptional memories are made not born" might need to be revisited.

Mr Anon

Lili Marlene said...

If anyone really, truly wanted to research a possible link between synaesthesia and memory sport performance the logical thing might be to find out which part of the brain is used in the method of loci, and then go looking for some type of synaesthesia that involves that part of the brain, (if such a condition exists), and then find out if the top competitors have this type of synaesthesia more than a control group does, or maybe test to see whether ppl who have that type of synaesthesia train-up better in using the method of loci. I know that there is an impairment in navigation memory that some people have. Presumably these people would be unable to use the method of loci. I guess that there is more to memory sport than using the method of loci, so this approach would probably be just a start.

Lili Marlene said...

"But if it could be shown that that person had not practiced to the extent of the others..."

I'm sure that you are smart enough to understand that this would be hard to demonstrate. Unless there is a study in which a very specific task is set as the thing to be memorized, so that it would be impossible to do any relevant homework in one's spare time to get an advantage, you could never be sure that performance isn't the result of secret prior self-training. How can we know for sure that Tammet never taught himself any Icelandic before that doco was filmed?

I guess it is possible that the countless synaesthetes in our communities harbour secret super-powers of memory or perception or whatever, but you've got to remember that many synaesthetes have so little awareness of the differences between their own psychology and the norm that they aren't aware that everyone else does not have the same synaesthesia experiences. They could be just as unaware of their own possible cognitive advantages. So a researcher would need to go out and identify synaesthetes in the world at large, and then study what they can do in very focused and carefully designed studies.

Anonymous said...

You're right - when faced with someone with exceptional mental abilities, it's very hard to demonstrate that they haven't achieved them through lots of practice and hard work, or an exceptionally favourable learning environment, rather than innate ability.

Still, elite performance is a good place to look for those differences. Suppose, for example that some people have a specific genetic difference that lets them run 100m a tenth of a second faster, other things being equal. It would be virtually impossible to detect this genetic difference looking at untrained non-athletes, because random differences in training would make far more difference than this genetic difference.

But at elite performance levels that extra tenth of a second would mean that people with that extra "gift" would be hugely overrepresented in top athletic competitions.

Similarly, if Synaesthesia gives a boost to memorising - even a small one - you would expect to see synaesthetes overrepresented in top competitions. And the more competitive the field got, with more competitors with roughly equal training, the more that those with the extra advantage would stand out.

Even then, confounding variables could emerge. Suppose that synaesthesia didn't really give a boost to memory, but an incorrect rumour circulated that it did. Then synaesthetes would be more likely to put in the work to get a good performance.

Basically, figuring out whether "talented" people really are talented, or have just practiced more, is really really difficult.

Mr Anon

Anonymous said...

I've just found a much better answer to your question about whether left handers are under or overrepresented in the elite of memory sports. The routes for remembering study gives an answer. Of the ten memorisers studied, one was left handed (almost certainly Dominic O'Brien). The rest were right handers.

As it happens, one in ten left handers is very much in line with the normal population. So nothing out of the ordinary in this (admittedly small) sample.

Mr Anon

Lili Marlene said...

That's good enough for me!

I just thought the question about handedness would be an easy thing to check, and if anything out of the ordinary was apparent, it could have given a clue that more research was needed. But I don't think it tells us anything much about the likelihood of autism or synaesthesia being in the target population, because I don't think either thing has been linked with atypical handedness in sound research. High IQ ppl might be more likely to be lefties, possibly.